A site for saur eyes

In 1936, the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire. The only survivors were the dinosaurs that still

At the beginning of the 21st century, before the apparently imminent but hotly contested redevelopment of the site, it is still possible to walk along the decaying terraces of Crystal Palace Park. These once served as a dramatic foreground to the building, but now stand in ruins. Only a few statues are visible among the extensive but flaking balustrades. Their forms, makers and subjects have fallen into obscurity. These statues are fossilised clues to the dream-world that was the Crystal Palace, yet what is most suggestive of the past is their actual, advanced state of decay.

At first glance, the statues resemble an idealised image of classical ruins. However, on closer inspection of the eroded surfaces, it becomes clear that this is concrete reinforced with rusted metal rods. Most of the figures have cracked to reveal that they are totally hollow, further emphasising their fake antiquity. These ruins appear to be some obscure historical footnote, a melancholic suburban anomaly, soon to be effaced by the ongoing transformation of the city's geography. They do not convey the scale and impact of the Crystal Palace, or the influence that this dream-world has had on our contemporary environment, both psychic and material.

Originally built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace was dismantled after the close of the show, relocated, significantly enlarged in a new configuration and set within a specially landscaped park in Sydenham, south-east London. It opened to the public in June 1854 and remained open until it was destroyed by a fire on the night of 30 November 1936. During its first 30 years, it received, on average, two million visitors annually. Two new railway lines were built to carry the huge numbers of visitors, creating a profound influence on the shaping and development of south London as a whole. As well as the addition of a huge marine aquarium in 1872, an enormous zoetrope was opened in 1868. Powered by a gas engine, this provided the first mass audience with an example of moving images. In addition to the regular attraction of balloon ascents, there were all manner of temporary events, such as rose shows, dog shows, poultry shows, trade fairs and various kinds of arts, crafts and industrial exhibitions. It was commonly used as a meeting place for thousands of large organisations. There were also numerous concerts, music festivals, circuses and pantomimes. Today, the only objects to survive intact are the sculptures of prehistoric creatures, which inhabit an archipelago of miniature islands.

If, as Foucault maintains, every science invents the object of its study, then the dinosaur was, arguably, invented by Richard Owen. It was he who, in 1841, announced to the scientific community in London that recently discovered fossil teeth belonged to a new group of extinct creatures, which he named "dinosaurs", or terrible lizards. The invention of dinosaurs was the invention of a hypermediated form, which had left only fragmented traces, and could not be experienced except through a complex process of scientific and artistic production. Dinosaurs existed through the interpretation and representation of fossil remains, the increasingly sophisticated field of palaeontology, and the movement through culture of dinosaur images and representations. Owen's classification followed the work of Georges Cuvier, a prominent naturalist and geologist who did much to advance the language of palaeontology through his study of geological strata in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was also an early proponent of the theory that species now extinct could have existed in an earlier historical period, which was a remarkable challenge to a culture that still held to a belief in biblical genesis. Cuvier became the leading authority on a scientific method known as "comparative anatomy", which compared the bone structures of living animals with those of fossil remains in order to determine the appearance of the living form of the remains that were being studied.

The first visual image of a dinosaur appeared in 1818, long before the term had been applied as a classification. It was a drawing by Gideon Mantell, another important figure in the history of the dinosaur. The picture was based on a number of fossil teeth and fragmentary samples of bones that he identified as belonging to an extinct reptile, which he later named "Iguanodon" (meaning "iguana tooth"), because the closest link to a contemporary anatomical reference for the teeth was the iguana. Mantell's sketch of a skeleton in a "live" pose is interesting in itself because it suggests a precedent for the (now dated) convention in museums of displaying dinosaur skeletons as if they were alive.

The origins of the decision to mount a display of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in the gardens of the new Crystal Palace are somewhat hazy. The idea may have come from Owen, or from Prince Albert, who had considerable influence over the project. In September 1852, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned by the Crystal Palace Company to build a series of prehistoric animal sculptures, and was appointed a director of the fossil department of the Crystal Palace. He was a specialised natural history artist who had enjoyed considerable success, and had shown work in the Great Exhibition. The dinosaurs were to be created under the guidance of Owen, who was instrumental in defining them in the form that can be seen today. Owen had inherited errors, such as the initial misinterpretation of the Iguanodon, and these are clearly visible in the reconstructions. And his ideas were later shown to be obsolete by the Hadrosaurus, discovered by Joseph Leidy. In 1868, the bones of the Hadrosaurus were reconstructed in Philadelphia. It was the first time a complete dinosaur skeleton had been mounted and displayed anywhere. The reconstruction, with its short forelimbs, suggested a creature that walks on its hind legs as a kangaroo does - which severely undermined Owen's and Hawkins's giant, low-slung lizards, in particular the Iguanodon and Megalosaurus.

The planned reconstructions were organised around a display of not only dinosaurs, but also marine reptiles and pterosaurs, prehistoric mammals and amphibians, laid out on three islands, each representing a different geological period, and in chronological order, suggesting an evolutionary movement, or at least a recognisably linear historicism. It was planned that the water surrounding the islands would rise and fall as an artificial tide, revealing and then hiding parts of the animals in the water, but this was never accomplished. The islands themselves were designed as models of geological phenomena, to demonstrate different strata of rock protruding through the ground. The design of the models involved painstaking research and showed a high level of accuracy based on existing knowledge. The subjects were chosen, in the manner that each was represented, by a large number of fossil clues, although none was complete. The bones were drawn to actual scale, which provided the scale and shape of an outline drawing, which was in turn defined by comparisons with living animals. This method, while ultimately constructing a scene based on notions of historicism and extinction, was used by Owen as an anti-evolutionary argument that was dependent, in fact, on characteristics archetypal of all forms of Creation. He argued that if progressive evolution were true, it would be visible in the history of fossil reptiles, given that reptiles as a class were considered to be the least fixed in their characteristics and the most transitional in their range of variations.

From the drawings made by Hawkins and overseen by Owen, a small model was made that was rigorously compared with the understood configurations of the fossils. Owen provides an account of the process of manufacturing the models once these designs had been made: "The next step was to make a copy in clay of the proof model, of the natural size of the extinct animal: the largest known fossil bone, or part, of such an animal being taken as the standard according to which the proportions of the rest of the body were calculated agreeably with those of the best-preserved and most perfect skeleton. The model of the full size of the extinct animal having been thus prepared, and corrected by renewed comparisons with the original fossil remains, a mould of it was prepared, and a cast taken from this mould, in the material of which the restorations, now exposed to view, are composed."

The life of the dinosaur as an object of mass culture begins from this process. As a cultural form that has itself evolved as an image, it was a perfect form both for industrial manufacturing and for the industrial production of simulacra, constructed as a likeness of an extinct form, rather than as a reconstruction of the original material - that is, an arrangement of the actual fossilised material itself. Also, this form foregoes a strictly scientific context in favour of one of educative spectacle. The materials from which the models are built would suggest that they were a Victorian architectural structure rather than a sculpture. Hawkins lists the materials for the Iguanodon as "four iron columns nine feet long by seven inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 five-inch half-round drain tiles, 900 plain, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone. These, with 100 feet of iron hooping and 20 feet of cube inch bar, constitute the bones, sinews and muscles of this large model, the largest of which there is any record of a casting being made."

This heavy, industrial, material object stands in sharp contrast to the contemporary manifestation of the dinosaur, digitally articulated as a bio-cybernetic, elegant and intelligent creature that moves with a supreme fluidity through many levels of culture. No longer is the dinosaur a heavy architectural form. It has evolved into a creature of the cinema and television, the museum, the natural history documentary, in an age of information technology and bio-genetic engineering. Its components are strings of code - binary and DNA alike - rather than crude stone and metal. The industrially architectural quality of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs is further demonstrated by the famous New Year's Eve dinner of 1853 that took place inside the mould of the Iguanodon sculpture, which was supposedly able to accommodate 21 people.

The dinosaur sculptures should be imagined in the context of the scale and scope of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The building alone must have been an awe-inspiring presence, which, together with the towering fountains, would have dwarfed the dinosaurs. This image hints at a situation where, although perhaps appearing large, fearsome and bizarre to a Victorian audience, the dinosaurs were domesticated by their setting. They could be frightening in a safe, unthreatening and commodified way. The 14 different prehistoric animals were revealed to an audience as star exhibits, unveiled from the confines of a narrow, predominantly scientific community and turned into a mass spectacle on an unprecedented scale. They were a publicity sensation and, as the Crystal Palace charged an entrance fee, a commercial one, too. The vast crowds that visited the palace, as well as generating enormous amounts of publicity, ensured the proliferation of the dinosaur as a popular image. Yet these popular images have been made obsolete; the knowledge and imagery surrounding prehistoric life are continually updated at an impossibly accelerated pace, from clumsy, industrial monsters to postmodern, sleek and bird-like computer-generated animals.

And, in the end, the dinosaurs could do nothing to save the Crystal Palace. Used as a naval supply depot during the First World War, it did not reopen until 1920, when one last attempt was made to restore the nearly derelict site. That year, King George V and Queen Mary opened the Imperial War Museum, housed inside the Crystal Palace. Visitors began to return, but in small numbers. The entertainments were less grand than before. A large part of the gardens had been converted, taken over by sports fields. The building was rusting and decaying, the fountains no longer worked and the stonework in the grounds was crumbling. In the years before its destruction by fire in 1936, the palace had already begun to resemble a ruin of a previous epoch.

A version of this article first appeared in Things (Winter 2000-01). Dan Smith is the co-director of Wunderkammer, a contemporary art project space in north London

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more